Vikings

Nick Mullens Was the Right Choice -- Not Because He's Better But Because He's Ready

Photo Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings made the official announcement that Nick Mullens would start over Joshua Dobbs after he led the lone scoring drive in the mockery of NFL football that was the Vikings’ win over the Las Vegas Raiders. That’s not particularly shocking – Mullens was more productive and entered the season as the primary backup to Kirk Cousins before his injury.

What’s interesting is how the Vikings got to this point. After all, a play-by-play analysis would have given Dobbs more benefit of the doubt against the Raiders and be a little more critical of Mullens. It’s one reason that Dobbs ended up with a better PFF grade than Mullens in that game.

From a production standpoint, after accounting for dropped interceptions, dropped passes, a missed field goal, pressure, and so on, a case could be made that Dobbs “played better” than Mullens.

Even if that were the case, however, there’s a reason to stick with Mullens.

Last week, I laid out a decision-making framework that might have pushed the Vikings to select Dobbs instead of Mullens, even in the case where Dobbs was the worse quarterback on average. The argument essentially went that the Vikings needed to prioritize increasing chaos when they are in a situation with a backup quarterback.

There was one caveat, though. A good defense minimizes the value of chaos and maximizes the value of the better, more consistent quarterback. And the Vikings might have an astounding defense. They allowed zero points to the Raiders – 13 fewer than Las Vegas has scored with Aidan O’Connell under center – and 12 points to the Bears, their second-lowest of the season.

Notably, the average starting field position for the Bears was the second-best that they had enjoyed all season. The best field position they earned this season was against the Washington Commanders, where they scored 40 points. Against the Vikings defense, their stunning field position – including two drives beginning in Minnesota territory – only managed 12 points and no touchdowns.

In fact, the Vikings lead the league in scores allowed on drives where the offense gained negative yards. That means the Vikings have allowed more points on drives where the defense performed outstandingly well than any other team in the league.

The Vikings are tied for first in points per game allowed since Week 5 and are second in defensive EPA per play. Given that, it might be worth dispensing of the idea that Minnesota should play a high-variance quarterback and instead should play the quarterback more likely to produce consistent results from down to down.

The Vikings fanbase has consistently underestimated Nick Mullens. Aside from the commentary coming out of training camp when Mullens won the backup job over fifth-round rookie Jaren Hall, Mullens has frequently been the odd man out in discussions over which player should start for the team, especially in the lead-up to their game against Las Vegas.

Sports Illustrated’s Will Ragatz ran a poll among fans for who should start against Las Vegas. As a joke, Ragatz also included himself among the options. After over 3,000 fans voted, Ragatz tied with Mullens in a distant third behind Dobbs and Hall. That sentiment has tracked across platforms.

This is despite the fact that Mullens has a better career resumé than Dobbs and has a history of strong play in a very similar style of offense to the one the Vikings run. In his 17 career starts, Mullens has had 10 games where he’s turned in over seven yards per attempt, the 2023 NFL league average. That’s 58.8% of his games.

He’s had seven starts earning more than 6.75 adjusted yards per attempt (41.1%) and the same number of starts above the league average for adjusted net yards per dropback – 5.81. Mullens’ career as a starter is surprisingly average for a backup.

By contrast, Dobbs has earned above the league average in YPA in 21.4% of his starts and the league averages in AYA and ANYA in 28.6% of his starts. Their career numbers showcase the same thing in the aggregate.

Even when accounting for Dobbs’ rushing ability through measures like EPA, it’s not particularly close – Mullens has a career EPA per play of 0.086 (31st among quarterbacks with at least 500 plays since 2012), while Dobbs has produced a negative EPA per play over his career, earning minus-0.096 expected points per play.

That ranks 86th of the 95 qualifying quarterbacks.

These aren’t dispositive, and quarterbacks with excellent career numbers can flop in a new environment, like fellow Kyle Shanahan alum Jimmy Garoppolo, ranked seventh in career EPA per play. Meanwhile, quarterbacks who struggled in one environment can flourish in another – Geno Smith, Jared Goff, and Ryan Tannehill are great examples.

But it at least suggests there’s reason to believe Mullens is the better quarterback. In all likelihood, the Vikings wouldn’t have traded for Dobbs had Mullens been healthy at the trade deadline.

The statistical case for Mullens is fairly strong when compared to Dobbs, but the stronger case is traits-based and likely the real reason that the Vikings benched Dobbs for Mullens.

One can diminish the career-long statistics by making reasonable arguments about the system Mullens succeeded in; Garoppolo ranks seventh in EPA per play since 2012 and has floundered outside of it, after all. One could also make the argument that Dobbs hasn’t been given a fair shake.

It might even make sense to agree with Pro Football Focus and argue that Dobbs actually played better than Mullens against the Raiders and still conclude that Mullens should start.

Mullens plays football like the Vikings need a quarterback to play football. Dobbs is in an unfair position – not just because of receiver drops but because he hasn’t had a chance to learn the offense. That’s not his fault. But the Vikings are not in the business of giving a quarterback as many chances as possible, and it’s arguably unfair for the Vikings to continue putting Dobbs in this position.

Fair or unfair, Mullens gives the Vikings a better chance to win because he can operate the offense. He gets rid of the ball in the rhythm of the offense and puts it where it needs to go in order for receivers to maximize their contribution.

Mullens’ familiarity with the offense is no accident. Kevin O’Connell‘s offensive system is built from the Sean McVay offense, itself an offshoot of Shanahan’s offense in San Francisco. That relationship made it relatively easy for Mullens to pick up the offense when he joined the team in 2022.

The two offseasons Mullens has had with the team have helped him understand where the receivers are meant to break and make appropriate reads for how plays adapt to opposing defenses.

NFL plays are already complex, but the routes can change against different coverages. That increases the complexity of the play and demands more of both the quarterback and the receiver. Memorizing each play is difficult enough, but that difficulty magnifies when each play is actually 10 plays.

So instead, the Vikings likely called a simpler offense, where receivers ran the routes that were called in the huddle with minimal adjustment. That simplifies the reads for Dobbs and gets everybody on the same page more often, but it gives the offense vanishingly few answers in a complex defensive environment.

On top of that, the plays that Dobbs does well – how the Vikings planned to maximize Dobbs – are plays that simply require more practice. Implementing elements like read option in the offense can’t be done on a whim; teams must practice the kind of blocking, timing, and ball-handling at the mesh point critical to that kind of play. That takes time.

And though much has been made of the advantage mobility provides a quarterback when dealing with potential pressure, less has been made of the fact that quarterbacks who get rid of the ball on time are less likely to see pressure in the first place.

Offensive linemen also need to adjust to mobile quarterbacks – good technique in one instance could be called holding in another if the quarterback moves around in the pocket or scrambles.

It could be the case that Dobbs can run some NFL offenses better than Mullens can. But Mullens runs this offense. He gets the ball out at the top of his drop and throws to where the receiver is going to go. He knows how the play adjusts after the snap.

If the offense felt better when Mullens was in despite the fact that his passes were hitting receivers in the hands as often as Dobbs’ were, that’s why. It’s his offense. Sometimes, it’s that simple.

Should the Vikings have started Mullens as soon as he was healthy? Without the benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult to say they should have benched a white-hot Dobbs. But they have no choice going forward – not because Mullens is a better quarterback, but because he’s a better quarterback for this team.

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Photo Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

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